The History of Black Cohosh

What is Black Cohosh?

Black cohosh has two Latin names. The original one was Cimicifuga racemosa, linked to a group of about 17 plants with scents believed to repel bugs, particularly bed bugs. “Cimex” means bed bug and "fuga" originates from a Latin term meaning to fight.

Then, with further changes in classification, the whole genus was added to Actaea, which made the new Latin name Actaea racemosa. Actaea was a genus named by Pliny, an ancient Roman scholar who wrote "Natural History," considered science’s first encyclopedia, comprising 37 volumes dating back to 77 AD. A significant portion of this comprehensive work focused on plant descriptions and classifications.

Nobody remembers why he chose the name Actaea but some say it was an ancient Greek name meaning dweller on coasts referring to sea nymphs or a goddess of the moon. I think maybe it is because it is found along the coastal states, but it’s anybody’s guess.

Most reputable articles on black cohosh still primarily use the original name and so the two names are now synonymous.

Fortunately, the species name racemosa is not in question. It refers to the racemes of white flowers on the plant. A raceme is a type of flower arrangement in which the flowers are attached to a central stalk by short stems. The oldest and thickest flowers are at the base of the raceme, and the youngest flowers and buds that have not yet bloomed are at the top.

This plant is native to eastern North America, from central Georgia to southern Ontario, Canada. The word "cohosh" comes from the Algonquian Indian language. I thought it might mean something soft or soothing because of the plant's calming effect, or maybe because of the "sh" sound. (Marshmallow, mush, mushroom, shhh.) But no, to my surprise, it means "rough"! How ironic, the exact opposite. Some say the name refers to the rough root, which was used for medicinal purposes. Others say it refers to the jagged edges and unevenness of its leaves.

Did you know that there are other cohoshes? Blue cohosh is not even in the same genus as black cohosh, but it was used for similar purposes. It has blue berries, while red cohosh has red berries and white cohosh has white berries. I checked them out, and their roots don't look any different, and they don't look rough. But their leaves all have uneven edges. So I am pretty sure that the name "cohosh" refers to the leaves.

Two images. The left image is a close up of black cohosh plant leaves. The right image is a close up of the block cohosh flower.

Scavenger Hunt: Unearthing the Enigma

The biggest challenge I faced in researching this topic was the lack of information. Many people have written about black cohosh, but they all say the same things, with some exceptions. For example, some say it is good for hot flashes, while others say it is good for menopause symptoms but not hot flashes. Some also say it helps with menstrual pain, while others do not. Additionally, I could not find a definitive answer to the question of what the main bioactive ingredients are.

One source just came out and said that it binds to opioid receptors, making it a painkiller, but there was no evidence to support this claim, and I did not find this information repeated anywhere else. Most sources said that it works like estrogen and can be used as a replacement for the hormone, but again, there was no evidence to support this claim.

Then I found a few articles that discussed its use by Native Americans. They also showed the colonists how to use the plant, which introduced it to Europe. These articles stated that they used black cohosh for various purposes, but only mentioned female problems and as a remedy for snakebite venom. That made me notice the alternative names for it because one of them was Snakeroot.

Here are the alternative names that I found in various articles:

Black snakeroot, Bugbane, Bugwort, Rattleweed, Rattleroot, Squawroot, Rheumatism weed, and Macrotys.

You can see why for most of those names, but what the heck is Macrotys?

The Eclectics and Their Role in the Medicinal Use of Black Cohosh and Other Herbs

Wow, looking that up opened up a whole hidden world! According to Brittanica, Macrotys was the term “The Eclectics” used for black cohosh. The article referenced a 1920 entry from the Encyclopedia Americana, specifically under the title "Cimicifuga," which highlighted the use of this herb by eclectics for aiding digestion, as a heart tonic, and as a uterine stimulant. There’s that word again. What’s an eclectic?

Oh, My Goodness! Did you know there was a time they called the Gilded Era of Medicine? It was from about 1870 to 1900.

Medical doctors began challenging the common practices of that time. They noted that treatments like mercury, arsenic, and bloodletting were not curing patients but rather killing them. They called themselves "The Eclectics" because they selected the beneficial parts of a subject and left behind the harmful aspects. The word "eclectic" means selecting or employing individual elements from a variety of sources, systems, or styles.

So, Imagine these doctors studying everything from herbology to homeopathy and energy medicine, and people getting well for 30 years. It was difficult for anyone to do anything about it because they couldn't call this group uneducated. The eclectics had trained at the best medical schools and considered themselves a branch of medicine.

Sadly, their schools were shut down and they were wiped out due to black propaganda and financial influence from an unscrupulous source. Their data was replaced with the same story all over the place, which is why I was running into an unvarying story about this herb. Thank goodness the library of the old eclectics was preserved and I was able to get a 16-page treatise on Macrotys written in 1905. Wow! This herb has been relegated to handling female problems, but it is, in fact, an incredibly versatile herb. I think that if an herb can address the multitude of discomforts associated with the female system, it must indeed be an all-around herb! Oddly enough, it was even used to enhance male sexual performance.

Now, the story of the name Macrotys. Well, it is actually a misspelling and should be Macrotrys, but the misspelling caught on and was kept to not further confuse things. “Macro” means large and “trys” is part of the Greek word “botrys” which means a cluster of grapes. However, another plant was already called Macrobotrys. This term refers to the flower clusters, which resemble large clusters of grapes when they hang down. Macrotys racemosa was the Latin name for this herb before it became Cimicifuga.

The eclectics did not go with the change, as all their literature referred to it as Macrotys. The whole story behind this is fascinating. Here is the treatise found in the library of the last Eclectic school and preserved If you want to read all 16 pages for yourself. It is loaded with information.

Here are some of the highlights and clarifications I got from this treatise: Native Americans used black cohosh for debility and rheumatism, to promote perspiration, and as a gargle for sore throats, besides using it for female problems. At the time, rheumatism was a general term for moderate to severe discomfort due to fluid accumulations and flows in the body, including menstrual discomfort. However, it could be anywhere in the body.

The Eclectics learned about the plant from the work of Dr. Johan David Schöpf, who volunteered to take care of the Hessian troops during the American Revolution. His country provided Hessians to England and he went along to take care of the “unfortunates”. I always wondered when they said that the Hessians were mercenary troops because mercenaries are usually a very mixed crowd of wild, tough fighters who would work for a foreign government. I found out that technically, the Hessians were auxiliary troops hired out by their own government for wars they were neutral to, mostly to boost their country's income. Now that makes more sense.

Well after the war was over, the doctor got permission to stay in the country to travel and study. He spent 8 years traveling most of the Eastern United States on foot as well as the Bahamas. He wrote a Materia Medica of America, documenting all the medicinal plants he encountered. This book found its way into the hands of the Eclectics and helped immeasurably in their early studies.

This treatise really describes the real deal menstrual pain that I had when I was younger. People called it “cramps”, but it was SO much more than that. I WISH I would have known about this herb then. Doctors enthusiastically said that it was invariable and it never failed to work against this. It also ended soreness in the skeletal muscles and the skin and even helped with the heart. If there was a weepy tissue with too much water in it it just firmed it right up. Just imagine how many tissues have that problem from time to time. That’s why it helps prepare the uterus for birth and then in postpartum recovery. It just tones everything and supports lung function too.

Early studies by doctors found black cohosh to be very fast acting in matters of soothing the nervous system and gave it for practically everything.

More Curiosities About This Powerful Herb

Finally, I found out why it is black cohosh when there is no black on the whole plant. When fresh green roots, which are white on the inside, are broken, they turn dark and eventually black. Talk about a hidden fact!

There’s a funny story about a countryman who sold a remedy that people traveled far and wide to obtain. It was said to cure things that doctors couldn’t. He was very generous, both in charity and pricing, but he would never reveal the ingredients. He guarded his secret until he was dying and called the eclectics. He said he wanted to impart his secret to them as a gift to humanity. When the countryman told them it was "a bitter of rattle root and whisky," they were more than a little surprised, as they were already using it.

Unfortunately, they did not understand how the herb worked. They called the part of the remedy that they considered to be the important mixture of components "cimicifugan." I tried to look up this term to see if anyone had discovered its biochemical action, but only cimicifugioside was mentioned as a player in this. I saw its wonderful structure, but no explanation of its modus operandi was offered. This must be a wonder substance, as it seems almost like a secret. However, there was another compound mentioned: actein.

Isolated Active Ingredient

Saints Be Praised! Finally, an isolated active ingredient! Actein cuts through mucus and improves the ability of certain immune cells to clear tissues of intruders and foreign matter. Oh, and it makes sense that actein is a precursor to glutathione, one of the most important antioxidants in all of biochemistry! It protects the inside and the outside of cells and it is essential for maintaining liver health, the organ responsible for detoxifying the entire body.

Actein is also used to manage acetaminophen overdose, the most common form of which is Tylenol. This is because acetaminophen overdose can damage the liver.

Final Words

Well, researching black cohosh has been quite a journey. I am sure that someday there will be wide-open studies on this herb featuring its many active ingredients, but no one has to wait for that. What matters most is what it does for you personally, not what any study, no matter how well-designed, says it does or doesn't do. That’s why I am always experimenting on myself. This seems to be one of those herbs that should be in everybody’s first aid kit and medicine cabinet, not to mention diet.

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Rosalie Roder got her Bachelors' degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Mary Baldwin University in 1983. After graduation, with that background, her real education on natural health and healing and human potential began. It is a never ending study and she is always happy to share what she has found out so far.